by SC Reporter Reese Holiday
As the coronavirus pandemic continues its economic tear, citizens of Sanibel and Captiva are gearing up for what will be an important tourism season for local businesses.
Economies worldwide have felt the effects of the pandemic, leading many business owners to make tough decisions about their future. The same can be said for the two sister islands where many of its businesses are just hanging on, according to President and CEO of the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, John Lai.
“We have a lot of businesses who are hanging on by a very thin thread and we know that they are very dependent on the next six months,” Lai said. “Anywhere that’s tourism based took a huge hit this year.”
The main part of the year where Sanibel and Captiva see the majority of their tourists come is during the winter when many Northern U.S residents look to escape the cold. However, increased bookings for Kingfisher Vacations during the islands’ offseason could lead to an optimistic winter for struggling businesses, according to Kingfisher Vacations owner, Jeff McDermott.
“We’re optimistic,” McDermott said. “Really, we kind of anticipate that as far as volume, it’s going to be similar as seasons past, but obviously it will have a different look to it.”
In order to keep offseason business going into the main tourist season, McDermott said that challenges have arose in terms of adapting to guests’ needs and keeping rentals clean. However, Kingfisher Vacations has conducted contactless check-in, disinfected their units, and has informed guests of the safety protocols on the island.
“We go out of our way to inform and educate the guests that are coming in at what the expectations are as just kind of a citizen of our island, if only being temporary,” McDermott said. “We just encourage everyone to follow protocols and be as safe as possible.”
Those guests, who typically come to the islands to vacation, usually originate from Northeast and Midwest states as well as Canada, according to Lai. However, because there is a risk of contracting the virus through airport travel, the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce is marketing towards areas that have direct flights to the Southwest Florida International Airport so that less of a risk is posed.
“For this year, we’re looking really at geographic areas that have direct flights into [Southwest Florida International Airport],” Lai said. “So, really targeting those short flights that are direct that people don’t have to have a ton of confidence in changing flights in an airport that they’re not 100 percent certain about.”
The chamber is also looking to target those areas within driving distance of the islands, but Lai believes that the islands are ready for anything, regardless of the guests’ origins.
“We think that Sanibel and Captiva are poised very well for whatever’s to come,” said Lai. “However, we also believe that it makes most sense for us to market to places where if people don’t feel safe flying, for whatever reason, they can cancel their flight and get in the car and still be here in eight hours or less.”
Due to the economic devastation that the coronavirus pandemic has caused, this year’s tourism season could prove crucial for the islands’ struggling businesses. However, McDermott believes that people will still want their time in paradise, pandemic or not.
“It’s become obvious that everyone still wants to get to the beach, and they feel Sanibel and Captiva’s the safe place to do it,” McDermott said. “People want to get out of their house, they want their vacation and they want to come to the beach.”